Court tosses out breath test, but upholds Iowa woman’s OWI conviction

By: - September 6, 2021 10:00 am

Iowa law books. (Photo courtesy of the Office of the Iowa Attorney General)

After finding that blood-alcohol tests shouldn’t have been admitted in the drunken-driving trial of an Oskaloosa woman, the Iowa Court of Appeals upheld the woman’s conviction based in part on incriminating statements she made before being advised of her rights.

According to court records, Dawn Loryne Chambers’ car was found in a Mahaska County ditch on the afternoon of Aug. 25, 2019, with Chambers lying outside the car nearby. When a county deputy asked Chambers what happened, she said, “I made a bad decision,” but did not elaborate.

Asked by another deputy whether she’d had anything to drink, Chambers did not respond. One of the deputies later spotted an empty bottle of Fireball whiskey on the floor of the car, and asked Chambers how many drinks she had consumed. “Two,” she replied.

Later, a deputy said to Chamber, “I understand you’ve had something to drink today,” to which Chambers replied, “Yup.”

He asked her how much she’d had to drink. She replied, “A couple of shots.”

When the deputy asked Chambers whether she thought she was drunk, she replied, “I could potentially have some alcohol in my system.”

She then agreed to take a preliminary breath test at the accident scene, first warning one of the deputies, “I’m going to fail, I made a bad decision.”

The preliminary test indicated a blood-alcohol level of 0.260 – over three times the legal limit for driving. She was handcuffed and taken to the county jail, where  a deputy applied for and received a search warrant to collect a blood, urine or breath specimen from Chambers. After the results were processed, a deputy told Chambers her blood alcohol level was 0.216. She was then charged with third-offense OWI.

At trial, her lawyers were unsuccessful in suppressing her incriminating statements and the breath test result and Chambers was found guilty.

In her appeal, Chambers’ lawyers argued the incriminating statements she made to deputies at the scene of the accident were the product of “custodial interrogation,” and were made without the benefit of Miranda warnings. The state argued a Miranda warning was not required because Chambers was not in custody while on the roadside and only being “detained” as part of an investigation.

In denying her appeal, the Court of Appeals said there must be both custody and interrogation, otherwise Miranda warnings are not required and noted that the courts have long recognized scenarios where police detention does not equate to police custody.

“The deputies reasonably suspected Chambers was intoxicated and asked reasonable investigatory questions … At most, they asked basic questions one would expect a police officer to ask when investigating a car accident potentially involving alcohol.”

While Chambers argued in her appeal that she was in custody because she was not free to leave the scene, the appeals court said that “when police have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity or traffic violations, they may temporarily detain a driver without placing them in custody.”

In her appeal, Chambers also argued that the breath-test results should have been suppressed because she was not informed of her right to obtain an independent chemical test, even when she told a deputy, after the failed breath test, “I’ll give you my blood. You can test for any drugs.”

Under the law, police officers aren’t required to advise suspects of their statutory right to independent chemical test unless the suspect requests such a test. In this case, the Court of Appeals said police violated Chambers’ rights since her offer to submit to a blood test “could be construed as a request for a blood test in lieu of the breath test.”

However, that error didn’t warrant a reversal of the guilty verdict or a new trial, the court found.

“Compelling evidence of Chambers’ intoxication came from the officers’ statements and the various video clips of Chambers at the accident scene,” the appeals court ruled. “Even without the breath-test results, strong evidence supported the trial court finding that Chambers operated her vehicle under the influence.”

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.